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The many festivals of Malaysia and Singapore

Updated on September 9, 2013
Source

Let me start this article by giving you a little quiz to tickle your grey cells.

So, how many of you were actually aware of the existence of all those festivals I’ve listed in the quiz above? More importantly, how many of you have actually heard of a country where all those festivals are widely observed every year, some of which are even declared as public holidays in the country’s official calendar? Has any of you come across a country with such diversity when it comes to festivities?

Well, if you don’t know, or you haven’t already guessed, the answer lies right in the centre of Southeast Asia. I’m sure the title has given it away.

Malaysia and Singapore are two countries that exhibit such diversity when it comes to their festivals and public holidays, thanks to the multiethnic compositions of their societies. With substantial proportions of their populations being of Malay, Chinese, Indian, indigenous or mixed ancestries, professing a variety of the world’s major religions, it is no wonder that these two countries witness a vast array of different cultural and religious festivals being observed at various times of the year.

Children seeking forgiveness from their elders - a customary practice during the first day of Hari Raya Puasa
Children seeking forgiveness from their elders - a customary practice during the first day of Hari Raya Puasa | Source
Ketupat, a type of dumpling in which rice is wrapped in woven palm leaves. It is a common delicacy and symbol during Hari Raya Puasa
Ketupat, a type of dumpling in which rice is wrapped in woven palm leaves. It is a common delicacy and symbol during Hari Raya Puasa | Source
Cow-sacrificing during Hari Raya Korban
Cow-sacrificing during Hari Raya Korban | Source
Maulidur Rasul gathering and procession
Maulidur Rasul gathering and procession | Source

Islamic/Malay festivals

With Malays forming the largest ethnic group in Malaysia and a substantial percentage in Singapore, Malay festivals are among the most widely celebrated in these two countries. Since most Malays are Muslims, generally all festivals and observances associated with the Malay community are Islamic festivals similar to those celebrated by Muslims worldwide.

Hari Raya Puasa (Festival of Fasting), also known as Hari Raya Aidilfitri or, more commonly around the world, Eid al-Fitr, is the largest festival of the Malays/Muslims. This festival is celebrated from the first day of the month of Shawwal in the Islamic calendar, after a full month of fasting in the preceding month of Ramadan. Fasting in the holy month of Ramadan is one of the obligations for Muslims in the Five Pillars of Islam, in which Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sunset. The practice of fasting in Ramadan is based on the belief that it was during this month when God revealed the Quran to Prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel, hence Muslims are required to fast in preparation for receiving this revelation. Fasting ends when the month of Shawwal arrives, which thus calls for a celebration signifying unity and goodwill among Muslims.

The second largest festival of the Malays/Muslims is Hari Raya Korban (Festival of Sacrifice), also known as Hari Raya Aidiladha, Hari Raya Haji or, more commonly worldwide, Eid al-Adha. Unlike Hari Raya Puasa, Hari Raya Korban is generally a more solemn observance. The Quran records the story when Abraham was tested by God, in which he was commanded to offer his son Ishmael as a holy sacrifice. Abraham, against his own will, submitted fully to God’s command and made preparations for the sacrifice. Just as he was about to cut Ishmael’s throat, he was amazed to find Ishmael unharmed, after which a dead ram, which had already been slaughtered, appeared before him to be offered as a holy sacrifice in place of Ishmael. Malays/Muslims celebrate Hari Raya Korban in commemoration of Abraham’s unwavering obedience to God, thus one of the highlights of this observance is the slaughtering of cows, after which the meat is distributed to the needy. Alternatively, Hari Raya Korban is often associated with the hajj (Islamic pilgrimage), since it begins on the tenth day of the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah, when Muslims perform their hajj in the holy city of Mecca. The hajj ritual of casting stones on the jamarat in Mina, a city east of Mecca, is associated with Abraham’s actions of casting stones on Satan when the latter tempted him to disobey God with regards to sacrificing Ishmael.

Maulidur Rasul, also known as Mawlid, is another widely celebrated occasion in the Islamic calendar. This festival, frequently observed by means of religious processions on the streets or in public spaces, commemorates the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, which falls on the 12th day of the month of Rabi’ al-awwal in the Islamic calendar. Awal Ramadan, Awal Muharram, Hari Nuzul Al-Quran and Israk dan Mikraj are other less commonly observed Malay/Muslim holidays. Awal Ramadan marks the first day of the fasting month of Ramadan, whereas Awal Muharram marks the first day of the first month of Muharram, or in other words, it is the new year’s day in the Islamic calendar. Hari Nuzul Al-Quran, which falls on the 17th day of Ramadan, commemorates the exact day when the Quran was believed to have been revealed to the Prophet. Israk dan Mikraj, which falls on the 27th day of the month of Rajab, commemorates the Israk (the night journey the Prophet was believed to have undertaken from Mecca to Jerusalem in the year 621) and the Mikraj (the journey in which the Prophet was believed to have been taken from Jerusalem to tour heaven).

Country
Festival
Type of public holiday
Duration of public holiday
Singapore
Hari Raya Puasa
National
1 day
Singapore
Hari Raya Korban
National
1 day
Malaysia
Hari Raya Puasa
National
2 days
Malaysia
Hari Raya Korban
National
1 day
Malaysia
Hari Raya Korban (2nd day)
State holiday in Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu
1 day
Malaysia
Maulidur Rasul
National
1 day
Malaysia
Awal Muharram
National
1 day
Malaysia
Awal Ramadan
State holiday in Johor, Kedah and Malacca
1 day
Malaysia
Hari Nuzul al-Quran
State holiday in Kelantan, Pahang, Penang, Perak, Perlis, Selangor and Terengganu
1 day
Malaysia
Israk dan Mikraj
State holiday in Kedah, Perlis and Negeri Sembilan
1 day
Decorative ornaments being sold in shops during Chinese New Year
Decorative ornaments being sold in shops during Chinese New Year | Source
Temple celebrations during Mid-Autumn Festival
Temple celebrations during Mid-Autumn Festival | Source
Mooncake - a classical Chinese pastry customarily enjoyed during the Mid-Autumn Festival
Mooncake - a classical Chinese pastry customarily enjoyed during the Mid-Autumn Festival | Source
Effigy of Qu Yuan on a dragon boat during the Dragon Boat Festival
Effigy of Qu Yuan on a dragon boat during the Dragon Boat Festival | Source

Chinese festivals

Since the Chinese community forms the majority and a significant minority in the Singaporean and Malaysian populations respectively, Chinese festivals are celebrated with much vigour and spirit throughout these two countries as well. Most of these festivals can be traced back to mainland China, and are generally similar to the festivals celebrated in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao and most overseas Chinese communities.

The most important festival in the Chinese lunar calendar is none other than Chinese New Year, also known as the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival. As its name suggests, Chinese New Year marks the start of a new year in the Chinese calendar, whereby the Chinese usher in a new beginning filled with hope for health, prosperity and longevity. This festival is often associated with a popular legend involving a mythical beast by the name of Nian, who would devour livestock, crops and even innocent villagers alike during the first day of the New Year. One day, the villagers noticed that Nian was afraid to come close to a young child wearing red. Thereafter, the villagers understood that Nian was afraid of the colour red, which then gave them the idea of wearing red and hanging red lanterns and spring scrolls, besides using firecrackers, to frighten Nian away. From then on, Nian never came back to the village again, and the villagers would celebrate the first day of the New Year with joy and happiness.

Chinese New Year, in its traditional sense, lasts for a whole 15 days, but due to modern constraints, most people observe it for not more than its first few days. Nonetheless, each of these 15 days has its own significance in different parts of China. In Malaysia and Singapore, the ninth day of Chinese New Year, known as Pai Ti Kong, is observed with special significance for the Hokkien (Fujianese) community, marking the birthday of the Jade Emperor or Ti Kong, who is revered as the ruler of Heaven in Chinese traditional religion. The fifteenth day, known as Chap Goh Mei or Yuanxiao Festival, is yet another significant day, traditionally marking the end of Chinese New Year festivities. This day is celebrated rather differently in Malaysia and Singapore as compared to other Chinese communities in the world, being a day when single women would write their names and details on mandarin oranges before throwing them into a river or lake, after which single men would collect them in the hope of finding a life partner.

Mid-Autumn Festival is the second most important festival in the Chinese calendar. This day, which customarily involves the eating of mooncakes and moon-viewing, falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar. A common folklore associated with the festival is the ascension of the moon goddess Chang'e to the moon after drinking the elixir of immortality, thus prayers and offerings are commonly held in honour of her during this festival. Other significant observances in the Chinese calendar include the Dragon Boat Festival, Qing Ming Festival and the Hungry Ghost Festival. The Dragon Boat Festival, also known as the Rice Dumpling Festival, is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month, in which this festival is popularly associated with the commemoration of the tragic death of Qu Yuan, a Chinese official and poet who was falsely accused of treachery during the Warring States Period of China. The Qing Ming Festival, observed on the 15th day from the Spring Equinox, which is around April 5, is the day when the Chinese traditionally clean the tombs of their deceased relatives and offer prayers to them, whereas the Hungry Ghost Festival, which falls on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, marks the day when the gates of Heaven and Hell are open, and spirits from the netherworld are allowed to roam freely in the world of the living, according to Chinese traditional beliefs.

Country
Festival
Type of public holiday
Duration of public holiday
Singapore
Chinese New Year
National
2 days
Malaysia
Chinese New Year
National
2 days
Deepavali decorations in Little India, Singapore
Deepavali decorations in Little India, Singapore | Source
A kolam decoration during Deepavali. Kolam is a form of artwork that involves using coloured rice, chalk or small stones arranged to form a clear picture or pattern, usually on the floor
A kolam decoration during Deepavali. Kolam is a form of artwork that involves using coloured rice, chalk or small stones arranged to form a clear picture or pattern, usually on the floor | Source
Hindu devotee carrying a kavadi with bodily piercings during Thaipusam
Hindu devotee carrying a kavadi with bodily piercings during Thaipusam | Source
Batu Caves in Selangor, Malaysia - the main focus of Murugan worship during Thaipusam in the region
Batu Caves in Selangor, Malaysia - the main focus of Murugan worship during Thaipusam in the region | Source

Indian/Hindu festivals

Although Indians may not be as numerous as the other ethnic groups in Malaysia and Singapore, the community still forms a significant minority, being one of the three major ethnic groups in both these countries. As such, Indian festivals are also considered significant holidays in the official calendars of both these countries. The Indian festivals observed locally can mostly be traced back to South India, and these festivals are mostly Hindu in nature.

Among all Hindu festivals, Deepavali is the most important and widely celebrated. Alternatively known as Diwali, the festival of Deepavali is often dubbed the “Festival of Lights” due to the fact that it marks the victory of light over darkness, or in other words, good over evil. How this victory of light over darkness in the context of Deepavali is interpreted differs between states in India, but the general notion among Malaysian and Singaporean Indians, whose ancestries trace back mainly to South India, is that Deepavali commemorates the victory of Lord Krishna over the demon Naraka. In Hindu mythology, Naraka was the son of Lord Vishnu, who became power-hungry and conquered many kingdoms on earth, ruling them with an iron scepter. As the people prayed for the defeat of Naraka, he tortured them ruthlessly. At last, when Lord Vishnu was reincarnated as Lord Krishna, he waged a fierce war against Naraka, finally killing him and ending the reign of tyranny over the common people. Deepavali thus became the occasion to celebrate this victory with joy, starting from the thirteenth lunar day of Krishna Paksha (Dark Fortnight) in the month of Ashvin in the Hindu calendar.

As Tamils form the largest sub-ethnic group within the Indian communities in Malaysia and Singapore, the Tamil Hindu festival of Thaipusam is another significant occasion in these two countries. Thaipusam draws its name from the month of Thai in the Tamil calendar, in which the festival is celebrated, and Pusam, which is the name of a particular star that is at its highest point during the festival. This festival is mainly celebrated by the Tamil community, commemorating the occasion when the goddess Parvati bestowed Lord Murugan with a Vel (spear) in order to vanquish the evil demon Soorapadam.

Due to the fact that Indian communities in Malaysia and Singapore comprise not only Tamils but also Malayalees, Telegus and Punjabis, many other festivals are also observed by these different sub-ethnic groups. The harvest festival of Thai Ponggal is another significant day for the Tamil community, in which offers of thanksgiving are traditionally made to the sun god Surya for a bountiful harvest on the first day of the Tamil month of Thai. For the Malayalam community, Onam is a significant observance in the month of Chingam in the Malayalam calendar, commemorating the Vamana avatar of Lord Vishnu and the subsequent homecoming of the mythical Emperor Mahabali after conquering the three worlds. The Telegu community observe the harvest festival of Sankranti, which is somewhat similar to Thai Ponggal for the Tamils. Indians professing the Sikh religion celebrate Vaisakhi, which commemorates the establishment of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. In addition to these festivals, each of these Indian sub-ethnic communities celebrates New Years according to their respective calendars.

Country
Festival
Type of public holiday
Duration of public holiday
Singapore
Deepavali
National
1 day
Malaysia
Deepavali
National except Sarawak and Labuan
1 day
Malaysia
Thaipusam
State holiday in Johor, Negeri Sembilan, Perak, Penang, Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya
1 day
Buddhists offering prayers during Wesak Day
Buddhists offering prayers during Wesak Day | Source
Christians observing Mass/worship during Good Friday
Christians observing Mass/worship during Good Friday | Source

Other religious festivals

Wesak Day is considered the most holy and important festival for the Buddhists, falling on a full moon Uposatha day in either the fifth or sixth lunar month of the Buddhist calendar. The festival commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha, and is customarily celebrated with prayers in temples, meditation, partaking in vegetarian food and ceremonies involving the bathing of Buddhist statues.

Malaysians and Singaporeans of the Christian faith observe typical festivals in Christianity, such as Christmas, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Christmas, which falls on the 25th of December, commemorates the birth of the Lord Jesus. Good Friday and Easter Sunday (sometimes called Resurrection Sunday), of which their dates differ every year according to calculations based on the Gregorian calendar, commemorate the crucifixion and resurrection of Lord Jesus respectively. Other common Christian observances include Ascension Day and Pentecost, which also differ in dates every year according to specific calculations. Ascension Day commemorates the day when Lord Jesus ascended into heaven after his resurrection, whereas Pentecost marks the day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and disciples of Lord Jesus after his ascension. Unlike the other festivals mentioned here, Ascension Day is not commonly observed in denominations other than the Catholic Church.

Country
Festival
Type of public holiday
Duration of public holiday
Singapore
Wesak Day
National
1 day
Singapore
Christmas Day
National
1 day
Singapore
Good Friday
National
1 day
Malaysia
Wesak Day
National
1 day
Malaysia
Christmas Day
National
1 day
Malaysia
Good Friday
State holidays in Sabah and Sarawak
1 day
Ngajat dance performed during Gawai Dayak in Sarawak
Ngajat dance performed during Gawai Dayak in Sarawak | Source

Festivals of the indigenous people

The indigenous people of Peninsular Malaysia (Orang Aslis) and East Malaysia consist of many different tribes, each with their own sets of unique traditional festivals and customs. Nevertheless, two of the most prominent celebrations are the Gawai Dayak and Pesta Kaamatan.

Gawai Dayak is one of the most widely celebrated festivals in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak. It is a festival celebrated across most of the major indigenous tribes in the state irrespective of religious beliefs, albeit with different sets of customs and rites. This festival marks the day of thanksgiving for a rich harvest and functions as a symbol of unity for the different indigenous tribes in Sarawak. Although it has been in existence since time immemorial, its widespread observance began only in 1957, when a radio forum helped popularize the idea of a unified festival for all indigenous tribes in the state. Thereafter, the festival was officially gazetted as a state holiday after Sarawak joined the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. Gawai Dayak falls on May 31 and June 1 annually.

Pesta Kaamatan or the Kaamatan Festival is the major festival for the Kadazandusuns in the East Malaysian state of Sabah. Somewhat similar to Gawai Dayak in Sarawak, the celebration of the Kaamatan Festival has been around since ancient times, functioning as both a harvest festival for thanksgiving and a profound manifestation of the Supreme Creator and His relationship with all his creations. Traditionally, the festival was celebrated with many animistic rituals based on indigenous beliefs, but the spread of Christianity and Islam among the Kadazandusuns has removed much of these influences today, although they may still be practiced in some places. Kaamatan Festival is celebrated on May 30 and 31 annually.

Country
Festival
Type of public holiday
Duration of public holiday
Malaysia
Gawai Dayak
State holiday in Sarawak
2 days
Malaysia
Pesta Kaamatan
State holiday in Sabah and Labuan
2 days

Despite the many cultural and religious festivals and observances in both Malaysia and Singapore, many of them are often celebrated across all communities, sometimes even at national levels, in the spirit of muhibbah (goodwill and camaraderie in Malay) among the different ethnic groups and religions. Hence, it is not uncommon for Malaysians and Singaporeans to have open houses during major festivals, which are often attended by friends and relatives regardless of ethnic backgrounds and faiths. If you are not a Malaysian or Singaporean, and you have never been to either of these two countries before, set aside a holiday to coincide with one of the major festivals mentioned above to experience Malaysian/Singaporean muhibbah culture to the fullest!

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